Before the continuous pouring process changed everything, Robert Mittenthal spent a summer in a steel mill working a number of jobs with impressive titles, including: assistant nozzleman, slagger, hooker and head hooker. He also worked as a janitor, dishwasher, library clerk and bookstore clerk prior to beginning a long career in the legal industry as a paralegal and litigation support person. His new book, Wax World, is just out from Chax. He blogs from Seattle at

Day and Night – Night and Day

Day and night, night and day, why is it so

That this longing for you follows wherever I go

In the roaring traffics boom

In the silence of my lonely room

I think of you

Day and night, night and day

Under the hide of me

There's an oh such a hungry yearning burning inside of me

And this torment wont be through

Until you let me spend my life making love to you

OK – I’m not really here to talk about how Sinatra powerfully translates Cole Porter into swoonsong, but about how Jacques Ranciere’s Nights of Labor might help articulate the problem of labor in a way that forces us to think, that induces us to take a risk.

I've been reading Ranciere's La Nuit Des Proletaires, a history of “nights snatched” or reclaimed “from the normal round of work and repose.”  The workers’ frustration was with the time sunk maintaining “indefinitely the forces [of their own] servitude… the humiliating absurdity of having to go out begging, day after day, for their labor in which one’s life was lost.”

Ranciere's archival project details the dreams and busy nights of French workers in the 1830s, who were “dreaming and living the impossible: the suspension of the ancestral hierarchy subordinating those dedicated to manual labor to those who have been given the privilege of thinking.”

The grievances of these workers were not just about working conditions and pay. They were looking for a different kind of emancipation.  They were “doubly and irremediably excluded for living as workers did and speaking as bourgeois people did.”

Ranciere does something difficult; he questions the purity of proletarian concerns, which he argues often seeks out a wicked third party to expel, just as Plato expels the sophist as undignified, as “undestined for [philosophizing] by nature...”  But there is no need to equate occupational and mental capacity. The emancipation to be pursued should conquer the useless – to take time to go where we’re told we shouldn’t go.

In Nights of Labor, Ranciere restricts himself to thinking with the workers via their archival texts/traces.  He doesn’t presume to think for them, that is, he tries to keep his own intelligence out of the picture; he resists the urge to compare, to explain, to critique.  This is consistent with his subsequent and more widely known book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, in which he argues for a presumption of equality, and against explication in education, rejecting the master-student dyad.

Back to the contemporary problem of Day and Night, i.e., how to productively “struggle to ‘do two jobs,’ that is, how to make artworks and earn a wage to support ourselves”?

To cope with my Day job (as a “litigation support” person in the legal industry), I have tried to partition or protect my Nights, in effect I’ve attempted to lead a bifurcated life.  I rarely talk about my nightlife during the day, and vice versa – though both lives are seasoned or infiltrated by their other.

This social bifurcation is perhaps a failed attempt to create ala the Saint-Simonians: “a different space for [our] lives as workers… restoring … the dignity of [our] nature which is sunk in the twofold servitude of work and the quest for it…”

The process of specialization, which divides jobs to make the worker more fungible, and/or eliminates jobs altogether, has led us toward the realm of so-called affective labor.  We find ourselves in a situation where Day always has some purchase on the Night.

Nightlife isn’t all it’s cut out to be.  The danger is no longer that you will merely take the job home, it's that the job has already taken you home.  You know you're in trouble when you solve a work problem in your sleep, or while laying sleepless in bed.

To quote Steve Shaviro:
“Hardt and Negri are … right to assert that the extraction of a surplus — which is to say, ultimately, of profit — has now extended well beyond the factory, to encompass all areas of social life, and that this means an increasing appropriation, not only of surplus labor-power, but also of what Marx called “general intellect,” or the accumulated knowledges and capacities of human life as a whole —  including things like habits, everyday practices, forms of know-how, and other potentialities of human (and not just human) “life” in general.” 
We’ve become entrepreneurs of ourselves. Trapped between performance measures and ‘personal’ operating plans.  There is a frightening new transparency in the culture of the Day.  Affective laborers are asked not just to accept the law of the market but to internalize it, to think the same way as the owners extracting profit from our labor. We workers must increase productivity to maintain our employers profitability and competitiveness, else the entire business may fail.  The dominance of “market” as an arbiter in all forms of economic and social life seems nearly complete; it’s accepted as a force of nature, a kind of gravity.

Worker-consumers now identify more efficaciously with lifestyle choices and preferences than via economic or social class.  The individual is now “free” to commodify or repackage himself – via the very products the individual consumes or prefers.  There is a sinister echo here with how we are forced to participate in a labor market; that is, we are likewise forced to participate in this social tagging or construction of a “self.”

The desires of worker-consumers have been very successful pandered to -- via both product and political marketing.  Perhaps Jenny Holzer got it right with her aphoristic: “protect me from what I want.”  But what alternatives are there to setting ourselves up to wait for ‘need’ to reemerge as dominant over ‘desire’?

Ranciere calls Platonic Marxism a discourse that has been co-opted by capitalism, imprisoned in its own circular system that has to stand-by – waiting, hoping that something will happen, that the conditions for the new will emerge.  Ranciere says it “hides itself in the inverted image” and is built on the same presumption of incapacity and inequality.  You can’t because you can’t.  Ultimately you are left stultified, impotent to escape.

One interesting line of flight from this waiting is to follow Isabelle Stengers’ suggestions in her brilliant article Introductory Notes Toward An Ecology of Practices.  How to construct or invoke social technology of belonging, to leverage that which attaches us and/or obligates us to think and act in new ways, i.e., as part of the practice of belonging to this social nexus or practice.

Or as Frederick Jameson suggests, we need “to think the break,” rather than a “picture of what things would be like after the break.”
“The formal flaw - how to articulate the Utopian break in such a way that it is transformed into a practical-political transition - now becomes a rhetorical and political strength - in that it forces us precisely to concentrate on the break itself: a meditation on the impossible, on the unrealizable in its own right. This is very far from a liberal capitulation to the necessity of capitalism, however; it is quite the opposite, a rattling of the bars and an intense spiritual concentration and preparation for another stage which has not yet arrived.” (Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, 232-3)
We can attempt to induce collective thought.  Not tearing down but respecting others practices, presuming the equality of others – which doesn’t mean we should expect manifestations of intelligence to be equal.  Different intensities of attention will generate unequal results.  We need to pursue the problems that force us to think. But to identify what activates us is no easy task.

To quote Leninology: “Be unrealistic, demand the possible!”

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